Love Makes A Fool of the Wise
By Ross Ufberg
My cousin Marty Godsick had a heart attack last Wednesday. They brought him into the ER at Mt. Sinai and they told him he had two blocked valves. They penciled him in for surgery that afternoon and I’ve been to see him every day since. Marty’s a good man but he’s as fat as a Friday morning goose. For years I told him to watch his diet but he listens like I sing. We’re both unmarried men in our sixties and without wives we would be lost to the world if not for our friendship. We live together, we eat together, when we belch it’s a symphony and when we snore it’s a chorus. We daven at the same shul and if one of us gives to charity he does it in both our names. I’m seven years older than Marty but he’s fatter than I am, so health-wise we’re even.
First time I got to the hospital I asked at the desk where my cousin was. The girl gave me back an answer so long that half of it I ignored. Finally I took any elevator and pressed the seventh floor because that was the least of the things I didn’t remember.
When I stepped off I looked in vain for the nurses’ station but all I found was a maze of rooms. I poked my head in somewhere and an alter kakerwith an entire Pennsylvania Railroad of tubes going in and out his body was lying on the bed, saying to a woman who was either a daughter or a second wife, “At my age, who needs speedy? A recovery is a recovery, all the same.”
Fool, I thought, and I spit three times. When I turned around a nurse was waiting, arms crossed over her chest, like she’d just caught me in some unspeakable act, and I asked her where I could find Marty with the broken heart. She told me where to go.
I took the elevator to the fifth floor and with no trouble I made it to Marty. He was sharing a room but the curtain was drawn and it felt like privacy.
He was lying on the bed, tubes in his nose and an IV in his arm. His face was green as a cabbage but he was smiling. He looked like a plump raisin, the only one in the raisin box, lying in the middle of those white bed sheets and with wrinkles everywhere.
“Marty,” I said. “You don’t look so good. How do you feel?”
He was whispering. “How do I feel? I feel like a million bucks. That somebody just pissed on.”
Okay, I thought. Marty’s fine.
“I gave you a scare?” he said. His throat was dry so his voice was scratchy. I must have been pale. He didn’t look pretty, all bandaged up.
“A scare? Marty, if you go, I want to come with you. What I’m gonna do here, all alone in this world?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll stick around a while. You owe me four thousand three hundred and six dollars.”
It was true. I did owe him the money, but who cares?
The pain medication was making him loopy. When he grimaced worse than before, I pinched my own leg to keep from crying out with him. I called for the nurse.
She was a pretty Jamaican woman who couldn’t have been forty and Marty lit up when she came in the room.
“Handsome Mr. Godsick, you botherin’ me again?”
“It was me pressed the button,” I told her. “Can you give him anything else for the pain?”
“I done told him hundred times, he just got to press this button” – she showed me a little remote control that Marty had buried under his sheets – “and he get a drip of morphine. I think he start to like me. That why he don’t want to listen. Keep calling me in.” She looked at Marty and put her hands on her wide hips. “You likin’ on me, child?”
Like a splash of water his eyes flashed. She walked over and gave him her hand. He squeezed it and squeezed the button. In a minute or two he was asleep and the nurse came back in and told me to go home. I kissed my cousin on the forehead. He’s my cousin but in my heart he’s my brother.
I went home to an empty apartment. That night I could barely sleep I was so lonely, nobody to talk to, to sit and drink tea with. When I brush my teeth usually Marty tells a joke, I shouldn’t get bored.
I came back the next day and Marty was looking better. I brought him a salad.
“Do I look like a rabbit to you? A salad?”
“You got to watch what you eat. I can’t do any better.”
He sat up and took the salad from my hands. Then he threw it into the wastebasket by his side.
“Thank you very much,” he tells me. “Next time, you should know, the zoo’s about forty blocks south.”
We never lacked for what to talk about and we kibbitzed. I stayed to watch the five o’clock news. When I left I asked the nurse how much longer Marty would have to be there, and she said he might be out in a few more days. I went home with a light heart and the next day I came back.
When I got to Marty’s room the door was closed.
“He going to the bathroom,” his nurse said, the black one. “You come back in ten minutes. Attendants got to wash him up after.”
Marty, I thought. If I could spare you the indignities of this life.
What was I going to do in the waiting room? So I walked around the floor.
In the room at the end of the hallway there was a big commotion, lots of voices coming out and people going in. I walked down to check what’s cooking and what do I see but it couldn’t have been less than a hundred balloons in one lousy hospital room. An entire wall full of them, up against the window, and in the middle of the room a nice-looking woman, young, on the bed, three little girls at her side. In the corner a gang of nurses and attendants and who knows who else were talking between themselves.
It was darker in the room than it should have been and I realized the balloons were blocking the windows.
“So much joy it’s drowning out the light,” the woman said. “I’d pop them, but this is a cardiac unit. My girls brought them for me.” She nodded to the three little pishers standing by her side. “Looks like I’ll have to wait for all the air to just leak on out of them.”
Stop it, I wanted to yell, Stop it, Stop it, Stop it, but I didn’t know who to yell it at. Why was this woman talking to me?
I went back down to Marty. He was looking better. The attendants had just given him a bath and there was color in his cheeks, his hair was combed.
“They gave me today a piece chicken like you wouldn’t believe. Jewish Services brought it over. Only they wouldn’t let me eat the skin.”
“Kiddo,” he said to me when I left. “Bring a little something for me to nosh on next time you come. Maybe a sponge cake, or a babka.” He didn’t need sweets but some of us are just balloons. This I thought about on my way home.
Usually I eat tuna fish for dinner but on Fridays I get myself a nice roast chicken from Blatt’s and once in a while there’s a girl from the Meals on Wheels who brings over a kugel when they got extra. I don’t need it. I don’t want for nothing in this world and I never ask, but she’s a sweet kid and she takes pity on my ugly face. That evening she left a kugel at my door and it was a lonely Shabbes but I ate better than usual.
I went to see Marty after shul on Saturday. I had a babka with me.
He didn’t look so hot. As green as he was the first day after the surgery, he was greener. The plastic tube was back in his nose. He was groggy.
“What happened?” I asked the nurse. This was a new one, one I’d never seen before. On weekends you get all the minor league players come out to the hospital.
Then a doctor came, he was young enough to be my great-grandson. Whatever he told me, it wasn’t good. I don’t know the difference between a stroke or a bypass or a busted whoknowswhat, all I know is when the doctor talks and he can’t look you in your face, it ain’t because you got a drop mayonnaise on your chin.
I yelled at Marty. I said, “You been eating crap you ain’t supposed to eat and you don’t do a lick of exercise, and when you get out of here I’m going to be like a wife to you, such a wife you’ve never seen. You won’t get a breadcrumb in your mouth I don’t inspect it first.” But I was scared. What would I do without Marty? He’s my cousin but he’s like my brother and I’d rather lose all my teeth than spend another two days without him.
“How was shul?” he managed to say.
“They gave the third aliya to Henkelman, he should live and be well. He’s rich as a Rothschild but when the gabbai stands on the bima and says we need a new roof, Henkelman looks at the floor.”
That got a smile. He said “Er iz a mamzer, ober vos ken men tun?” He is a bastard but what can you do?
“Shver tsu zayn a Yid,” I answered him. It’s hard to be a Jew.
“Enough,” said Marty. “You’re supposed to cheer me up, not make me cry. I’m tired. I got to get some sleep. Do me a favor, get me the fuck out of here next time you come.”
I kissed Marty, my brother, my friend, on the forehead and I went home.
It was a terrible night. What was I supposed to do twelve hours by myself? I read the paper, then I went out and bought another paper, just to have something to read. I watched a little television but television always upsets me. When I tried to sleep my ulcer woke up.
It was a feeling. A premonition. I opened a can of sardines and boiled coffee, and at five in the morning I called Marty’s hospital room. I couldn’t take it no more. Nobody answered so I hung up and called back two more times. Finally a bite.
“Oh, is that you, Mr. Cornfeld? I been looking to call you but you didn’t leave no number. Marty been asking for you before. Come down if you can. I afraid to say, he almost gone.”
We’re like twins. When one of us trips, the other stubs his toe. I knew something was wrong. I should have listened to my stomach.
Never in my life have I gotten dressed quicker. I hailed a taxi in the morning streets and I said to the driver, “Take me to Mt. Sinai. Drive like I’m a pregnant woman.” This pit in the stomach, it was something breaking me from inside out.
We drove through the park and I saw the giant roof of the hospital as soon as I looked for it. If I was a jewbird, I’d have flown, but I’m just me, so I had to sit in the back of the taxi, losing my mind, eating my guts out.
That Marty should ask for me and not find me by his bedside saddened me to no end. I rushed to the elevator and pressed the button and saw I forgot to close my pants. Being alone, I dressed myself.
The doors opened and I stepped out but the hallway was dark. I heard a beeping. I looked at the wall and saw I pressed the wrong floor. The truth is, I was scared.
Love makes a fool of the wise. I cried and I prayed and when I did, I invoked the whole Jewish hall of fame to intervene for my Marty.
I couldn’t think of anything but Marty’s face when he tells me jokes and he never gets through a joke he doesn’t have to start over because he forgot the punch line. I should be at his side.
So now here I am, standing at the elevator, hands shaking, but I just can’t press that button. There’s this feeling I got. As long as I don’t press that button, Marty Godsick is still alive. But please, I am calling out to you. Somebody, God, all you dead souls up there in himel with a heart, anybody with a finger and an olive’s worth of compassion. Please, will you press that button? I need to know. If it is, it is. But I got to know. What’s going to be with Marty Godsick, my cousin, my brother, my friend?